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Wednesday, Jun 24, 2009

File this under “Two more reasons John Zorn’s Tzadik is one of the coolest record labels around” and “can’t an hombre kvetch?”


We’re only halfway through 2009 and Tzadik has seen the release of two of the most exciting jazz recordings of the year, courtesy of a surprising source.


Cuban-born percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez grew up in Miami and, like many children, was heavily influenced by the music of his surroundings. Many kids absorbed the Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms of south Florida’s communities. Others lapped up the strong Caribbean flavor running through the city. Still others took to Dade County’s burgeoning hip-hop and club scenes. In Rodriguez’s case, however, the music that moved him originated from an unlikely source: Jews. As a teenager in his father’s bands, Rodriguez played his fair share of Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. He became enamored with the sounds of Miami’s large Jewish population and eventually provided music for a local Yiddish theater. Over time, Rodriguez began to envision the union of Jewish folk aesthetics with the Cuban music of his ancestry.


Fast-forward a dozen or so years and John Zorn has finally allowed Rodriguez’s vision to become a reality—and we’re all better off for it. In February, Tzadik released Rodriguez’s brilliant soundtrack to The First Basket, a documentary film about the history of Jews in basketball. Featuring both traditional acoustic and modern electronic instrumentation, the soundtrack is a tasty stew of Sephardic melodies and Cuban rhythms filled with generous chunks klezmer, club, and blues. Then, last month Rodriguez did it again on Tzadik with the release of Timba Talmud, another exciting fusion of Jewish and Latin music. The album’s opening track, “La Hora,” a play on the traditional Jewish dance song, is a blistering, infectious jam. Rodriguez provides an astounding percussion foundation that makes you wonder if he has more than two hands. And his bandmates readily fall in line with excellent violin, bass, and horn lines. 


Tzadik is certainly no stranger to the fusion of traditional Jewish music with other genres. The label’s Radical Jewish Culture series has almost single-handedly revived/created an (secular) interest in traditional Jewish music (and not only among folk music aficionados, but with those in the jazz and rock worlds as well). Rodriguez certainly isn’t the first artist on the label to combine Jewish and Latin music. In 2007, David Buchbinder’s brilliant Odessa/Havana showed that klezmer melodies and Cuban rhythms were not mutually exclusive. And Zorn’s own Masada groups have merged countless styles and aesthetics. Tzadik’s experimental juggling of genres and styles has also seeped into the mainstream jazz world as a renewed interest in the melding of diverse styles can be seen far and wide.


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Friday, Apr 17, 2009
It seems that indie has turned from the glam and glitz of orchestral pop to the grit of lo-fi.
picture taken from soundcoremusic.com

picture taken from soundcoremusic.com


Now that we’ve nearly settled into a post-record label era, a time when big labels are losing money and the only bands big enough to sell large quantities of albums and concert tickets are bands from the past, it makes sense that sensibilities have returned to lo-fi. It made sense in the ‘80s too, when there was the rebellion against the over-produced, super-slick synth sounds, but when grunge took off it kind of trivialized lo-fi’s relevance as a counter-cultural sound.


So, now that it’s easy for a kid in his bedroom to make something sound like the newest Kanye record, it seems like it’s really taking a stand to make your band/recording sound shitty, and the almost counter culture focuses its interest in lo-fi once more. It’s hard to define what is counter culture or indie at this point (I’m sure someone’s already written something about this and given it much more thought than me), when certain online music sites are the source for a certain sort of music fan and bands that would’ve been far too difficult years ago now appeal to every other college kid, this also confuses the genre.


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Wednesday, Apr 15, 2009

Two years ago, CunninLynguists, a group little known outside underground hip-hop circles, dropped Dirty Acres, easily one of the best hip-hop albums of 2007 and arguably one of the best albums of the past decade.


Three alliterative Ss were all you needed to describe Dirty Acres.


Subtle: Unlike many of their peers in the South, CunninLynguists don’t overpower you with club beats and violent vitriol. Instead, they let the subtle music and lyrics slowly work their way into your consciousness. It may take a little longer, but, once the songs are there, they stay for good.


Savvy: Kno, the primary producer in CunninLynguists, is one of the most savvy diggers around, searching for, selecting, and mixing a range of samples that serve as the basis for some of the most infectious beats in hip-hop. His songs aren’t supersaturated with layers of electronica, strings, and harmony vocals. Instead, Kno relies on timely cuts, careful tempo modification, and elegant key changes to enhance—rather than overpower—tasteful samples and thoughtful lyrics.


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Monday, Mar 30, 2009
Neko Case's Sixth album, Middle Cyclone is almost a month old, but has quickly become one of her most important works in her distinguished career.

Tornados. Essentially tornados abound in Neko Case’s sixth album Middle Cyclones, a brilliant pop/folk/rock/etc album. Maybe one of the purest displays in Neko’s career, the album is filled with density learned from composing and touring with her side super-band The New Pornographers. These songs are demonstrating growth in Neko’s song writing ability. Neko has constructed songs with limited space, she’s giving us a Neko Case pop sonic masterpiece that takes some time to find a spot to settle into and enjoy, but the album’s main purpose is to drive the idea that we live in a stormy world that we do not even work on our own behalf to enjoy fully. We all struggle, as Neko, to find love and to define it for ourselves, but we also push away those who mean us most joy. We are stormy creatures, afraid to communicate fully in a world filled with the ability to communicate anything to anyone at any time. Middle Cyclone is the love album for the early 21st Century. The songs are richly decorated; they spin the listener into the ground and then spend equal time allowing comfortable recoil.


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Friday, Mar 6, 2009

I suppose I have to open with the disclaimer here.  Until recently, I was an employee at the Music Resource Center, a non-profit recording studio for kids in Virginia.  While there, I worked with many fledgling musicians and attempted to teach them the proverbial ropes (insofar as I knew my way around them myself, which is still a work in progress).  That’s where I first met Colin Steers, the lanky self-professed dork currently featured as a contestant on the second season of Bravo’s reality TV/game show/fashion expo Make Me a Supermodel, which premiered Wednesday at 10pm.


In high school, Colin played bass in the wonderfully spastic pop quartet Body For Karate, seen here tying him to the train tracks.  Up in front was Ross Bollinger, a prodigious young songwriter who spat out hectic chirps without the slightest hesitation and pumped his ukulele through a giant tie-dyed amplifier.  Together, they cooked up a slew of riffs so catchy that it didn’t really matter that an electric uke was a bizarre way to go about executing them.


Even that wasn’t their most oddball tactic, though—at one awesomely disastrous performance, half the power infrastructure fizzled mid-song, taking out everything but the tie-dyed amp.  Without missing a beat, Ross pulled out his Gameboy, plugged it in, and dove into a game of Tetris while the drummer jammed along with the 8-bit theme, buying us some extra time to figure out what had gone wrong.  These days, he’s more inclined toward using a bright yellow $20 toy guitar for his “gigs” with the Dead River Company, a Brooklyn-based musical flash-mob that runs in and out of subway cars and parties playing quirky folk without really giving a damn whether you want to hear it, but at least now we know the weirdness quotient is stable.  (You know, just in case the pictures don’t already make that clear.)


All along, B4K entertained an unhealthy fascination with robots, resulting in numerous songs ending in “-tron.”  Foremost among these is “Uktron 3000 (4000),” which features some of Colin’s most spirited backup singing and some neat half-synthetic drum parts but is still driven primarily by an astonishingly addictive keyboard part.  After the first couple EPs, however, scheduling problems kept the band from meeting up at the studio, so “Parry Thrust Thrust Parry” eventually turned into a bedroom recording project, much to the dismay of the staff. It’s distressingly lo-fi, but probably their most mature work in nearly every other respect.


I’m glad Colin’s appearance on national TV gives me cause to post his old band’s music here; when they were at their peak, I was just starting my career moonlighting as a music writer (also still a work in progress) and have always thought the songs deserved a broader audience than I was able to give them at the time.  I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for him while watching the show over the next couple months, but if there’s any sort of talent portion of the program a la the more straightforward beauty pageants, it’s all over.



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